Monday, March 31, 2008

Eight Months, Two Weeks, and Three Days

Eight months, two weeks, and three days. If I had a calculator and even the slightest ability to add, subtract, and multiply, I could probably break that figure down into days, hours, minutes and seconds. But, I’m not very good with the maffs. I do know that’s roughly two weeks shorter than my son’s gestation period. It’s also the amount of time it took me to realize just how truly difficult parenting was going to be.

Sure, in the first eight months, two week, and three days, I’ve struggled mightily with fatherhood. You won’t believe it until it happens, but when you’re a parent, you suddenly lose 25 percent of your sleep, but you also realize that – as a father – you magically don’t need those two hours of sleep a night anymore. In fact, you beat yourself up for all those years you insisted on sleeping a full seven to eight hours a night when you could’ve been writing the great American novel or catching up on AMC’s late-night fare. You know what else you realize? That you don’t really need to sleep in consecutive hours – 20-minute bursts will do just fine, thank you very much. You can fit a full three dreams into 20 minutes and wake up refreshed with a little tiny foot in your left eye orbit. There’s no better way to awaken.

You also don’t realize, until it happens, how good you can be with your time management skills. If I’d realized how great I was at organizing my time, I might’ve gone into time-management consulting. I can juggle a schedule like a circus professional – I can keep one project hanging up in the air for hours while simultaneously tossing six balls, two blocks, and a shitty diaper into the air.

And speaking of shitty diapers, I never realized I had such a facility for tolerating excrement! Before I had a child, the topic of bowel movements was verboten in my world – as far as I knew, no one ever visited the bathroom for any other reason other than to reapply their hair gel or clip their nails. I had a knack for blacking out my own toilet sessions, like mini-traumas I forced to the back of my mind a few times a week. But now: I play in excrement! Feces and I have become excellent friends. Shit is like my favorite new accessory, which I wear with a broach of regurgitated breast milk and a nice string of urine around my neck, like shiny glistening pearls. I’m the hippest Dad on my block.

And then there’s the crying. Eight months, two weeks, and three days ago, I wanted to murder the parents of infants who took their goddamn children to movie theaters, restaurants, and other public places where infants had no business to be, like the park or other open-air spaces. The screaming, the bawling, the incessant whining! It drove me berserker, and I firmly believed those parents should’ve been given the guillotine, on the spot, without due process. Weeping, I reasoned, should only be done in the privacy of the home, maybe even under a pillow or three to better muffle the sound. But I realize now that seasoned parents – or at least those with children older than three months – no longer hear the crying. It’s just background white noise, like the Meredith Viera, only less annoying.

But today, after eight months, two weeks, and three days of diapers, bawling, sleepless nights, missed appointments, and botched assignments, I realized that the hard part is just beginning: Today, for the first time, I actually hurt my son’s feelings.

For the last couple of months, our son has gotten increasingly mobile – he can crawl, he can pull himself to the standing position, and he can even climb up an entire flight of stairs. He’s a little goddamn miracle, I tell you. With increased mobility, it’s become more imperative that one word becomes part of his vocabulary: “No.” My wife and I have attempted to make use of the word in many occasions –- when he tries to climb skyscrapers, when he bites during nursing, or when he attempts to eat the bottom of a shoe. It’s all for his own good, of course.

Until today, however, “No” was just another random noise, an utterance like “wowwowwuzzy” or “motherfucking cocksucker” that didn’t compute –- the simple grouping of two letters that didn’t ring any bells in his tiny, growing brain. But when he attempted to climb the radiator cover in our living room this afternoon, I used the word in the same harshly gentle way I’ve used it dozens of times before, but this time, for my son, there was actual meaning attached to it. He recognized disapproval. And instead of smiling and going along on his merry way like his father was just another wooden Indian statue in a barber shop, he turned toward me, gazed with his liquid blue eyes into my face, paused for three seconds, curled his lip under, and cried. And it wasn’t the kind of crying one would associate with a wet diaper, hunger, or a little bump to his noggin. That’s crying I’ve become accustomed to, the sort of sniffling one can treat with a simple, “there, there, you’re all right,” and a few pats on this back. This was different: It coincided with huge, streaming tears that flowed like cheap, store-brand ketchup and dribbled off his chin like a sno-cone in July. But instead of curling up into the fetal position, running to his room, or lashing out, like you’d expect from a child when he gets yelled at, my son reached for me. He fucking reached for me, after I’d just used the harsh no, after I’d hurt his feelings, after my words made his lip curl under. He reached for me.

And it broke my fucking heart in three.

And so, today, after eight months, two weeks, and three days, I recognized how much difficulty I’m going to have, because now I know. I know that every time I tell him no, every time I ground him, or take away his toys, or tell him not to blow bubbles with his applesauce, or stop him from going to a party or a sleepover, or tell him I’d rather he not drink the six pack I left in the fridge, I’m going to remember that the first time I hurt him emotionally, he reached out to me.

I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what that means.


Anonymous said...

And so it begins.

There's nothing more heart-wrenching than the first time you have suddenly and forcefully yank your kid away from a potentially dangerous situation (hot pan on the counter, sharp-pointy object), yelling "NOOOO!", thereby scaring the ever livin' shit out of them.

That balled-up, red-faced look of horror they give you just about kicks your kidneys to Siam.

But still, even through those howling tears, they reach for you and demand a hug.

Felis Femina said...

As a non-parent, I enjoyed your story with a moral and will remember it when I finally have my own kids.

P.S. My favorite sentence in the whole story - It drove me berserker.

slouchmonkey said...

Holy crap! My little chick-a-dee is 5 months on Sunday. I enjoy the present tremendously, but am looking forward to the many things the future holds.

I can't say I'm looking forward to what you just described but note taken, thanks.

Jayne said...

Oh, Dustin. This was lovely- thank you for sharing!

rebeccah said...

Be brave...

It's the most frightening thing to become so damn fragile of heart when you are supposed to be the strongest and safest person ever. It only becomes more and more complex, but take heart - the best lesson I've learned from my kids so far is that they'll trust me if I bellow NO at them...they may buckle and crimple afterwards in shock or dismay, but they don't step off the curb either. I can breathe much better now that I know that.

The worst day of parenting for me was when my mom gently told me that I don't get to be best friends with them forever, as it serves them no good in life as future individuals. The toddler part is truly the best, most golden time for suspension of that enjoy! Enjoy as much as I did reading your story.

karabee said...

What an eloquently described beautiful moment. :)